Yale Law Professor Misses the Point on Censorship of Political Cartoons

By October 16, 2009

In an op-ed in the Yale Daily News, Yale University Law Professor Anthony Kronman attempts to defend Yale’s decision to censor the Mohammed cartoons. Kronman makes a number of points in an effort to show that the decision to remove the cartoons from author and Brandeis University Professor Jytte Klausen’s book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, published by Yale University Press this fall, should not bring condemnation upon Yale University. However, all of Kronman’s arguments miss the mark.

For starters, Kronman argues that Yale University is a distinct institution from its Press, and that the decisions of the latter, good or bad, should not be weighed against the university. He adds:

the Press exercises tight editorial control over the books it publishes – in contrast to the University, which does not seek to edit the intellectual life of the Yale community. The mission of the Press is to disseminate the fruits of scholarship, and in doing so it makes, and must make, countless judgments regarding which books to publish, in what format and the like.

However, Kronman ignores the plain fact that in this case the university intervened in the Press’ editorial process and, breaking from standard protocol, conducted its own review. Yale provided copies of the cartoons at issueand not the work as a whole, thus failing to provide any academic or literary contextto a group of individual consultants, and, relying on the opinions of these consultants, decided to remove the cartoons from Klausen’s book. Moreover, the university has refused to reveal the identities of its consultants, even to Klausen herself, setting a dangerous precedent with its lack of transparency and accountability. These were not the actions of the Press conducting its normal review processindeed, the book was cleared for publication by the Press’ standard review. Rather, these were decisions made by the university because it felt the need to step in and take over the editorial process.

Kronman also ignores the fact that Yale’s shoddy treatment of Klausen’s book almost certainly came as a result of the nature and history of the cartoons to be included. In other words, the removal of the cartoons was not, as he suggests, an academic decision made by some impartial decision-making body. After all, how could it have been if the reviewing parties, those anonymous consultants, did not even have access to the work as a whole? Rather, the university saw the possibility of controversy if it allowed the book to be published by its Press with the cartoons included and, seeking a cowardly way out, imposed its decision upon the Press.

Next, Kronman argues that the removal of the cartoons was justified by the possibility of violence resulting from their inclusion in the book:

Second, the books published by the Press circulate in the world at large, where no common and long-established traditions of civility comparable to the ones that characterize the internal life of the Yale community exist. Third, and most obviously, neither the Press nor Yale generally has the ability to assure the peace and safety of every forum in which its books are read and discussed, around the world.

On this point, I wonder how many other scholarly works should be similarly censored due to a fear of controversy or violence. Would the Press’ decision to publish Klausen’s book with the cartoons included be any different from the publication of so many other books, articles, and blogs, all of which circulate far beyond Yale’s gates? In the age of the Internet, especially, arguments and ideas that some audience will deem "dangerous" are ubiquitous. But this does not place upon a publishing party some sort of duty to safeguard others from harm. Moreover, as FIRE has already pointed out, the argument advanced by Kronman, by giving in to the threat of violence abroad, would essentially provide a "heckler’s veto" to individuals who have no affiliation with the university. His argument erodes the freedom that our society enjoys and cherishes.

Despite Kronman’s efforts, there is no acceptable justification for the manner in which Yale has treated Klausen and her work. Rather than attempt to defend Yale’s actions, members of the Yale community should learn from this experience and make sure that this sad act of censorship never repeats itself.

Schools: Yale University